Friday, July 22, 2011

Free Diving With a Mermaid

Photo by Bo Pardou

Dana Richardson was born a fish out of water, so-to-speak. Richardson, who began her life in the fossilized ocean (Phoenix, Ariz.), always felt the yearning to be in the sea. The need to be aquatic led her to practice free diving in pools at the age of 8. To keep her scales from drying up, Richardson moved to Southern California in 1996. Now, at 33, the self taught free diver and “mermaid” feels right at home in Kona on Hawaii‘s Big Island, a free diving paradise where she has lived for the past decade.

“I remember visiting Oahu when I was younger and Hawaii has always felt more like home to me than anywhere else,“ she says. “I’ve always had a deep respect for island culture and love all the islands, yet the moment I landed in Kona I knew this was my home. The island is alive and full of so much life and aloha, with an active volcano that is erupting daily. The Kona sea is filled with an incredibly vast amount of marine life, including my favorites, whales and dolphins."

An average day for Richardson is, of course, waking up to some Kona coffee, catching the morning sunrise and checking to surf. Luckily for her, Kona is the leeward side of the island so generally the water conditions are beautiful and glassy. If she’s not surfing or out on the boat she finds a good beach to swim from shore to say hi to all her sea buddies. Some of those “friends” are three main pods of spinner dolphins that travel off the Kona coast, which Richardson has swam with, photographed and researched for the last 10 years.

“I know their behaviors and routes well and can also recognize many by their scars and markings,” says Richardson, who also works on a dolphin and whale watch boat in Kona as a captain and naturalist. “ As wild dolphins, even though their route stays consistent, they do occasionally change it up, which always makes for an adventure.”

Richardson normally stays between 30-to-60 feet deep while swimming or photographing sea life (but she can go as deep as 100 feet) . She can hold her breath up to 4 ½ minutes now, but when she’s actively swimming, her breath hold is much shorter, around 1 ½ -to- 2 minutes, depending on how fast she’s going.

“I started as a self-taught free diver, having always been more comfortable under water than on land, and have since taken free dive courses to ensure safety and deeper levels of practice,“ she says. “The more you relax the longer you can stay down, and it truly is mind over matter. Free diving is a practice of discipline as well as awareness. I relate free diving to the alpha state, which is how some marine mammals rest. Basically they slow their heart rate down and shut half their brain down at a time, yet still are very conscious and aware of their surroundings. Underwater meditation.”

In between free dives, surfing, teaching snorkeling lessons, boating, “mermaiding” and underwater photography, Richardson, known to some as Dana Mermaid, took some time out to talk more in depth about her life under the sea.

DH: Describe to me as best you can the world beneath the depths.

DR: Beautiful, magical, amazing, and definitely to be respected. The ocean beneath the depths really is another world. The waves, plankton, coral, fish, turtles, rays, dolphins, whales, and sharks are all co–related and need each other to survive. Watching how the world works so gracefully in that circle of life underwater is a beautiful thing. Personally, I believe life on land is much more dangerous than underwater. The ocean life still has the ability to co-exist and everything is in tune with one another. Here on land, we seem to have forgotten that innate ability and there is much more destruction, which is now greatly affecting the underwater world. The ocean really is a magical place that needs to be respected rather than feared. Learning about sea life and their behaviors is so important and can help dispel the deep seated fears the world has spread about sharks and other sea life. Learning how the ocean world lives teaches us when and how to swim, which is key to respecting the sea life and being safe. Having swam with many types of shark species I can honestly say they are not out to get us. Rather, they are mostly shy creatures fulfilling an important role in the ocean ecosystem.

DH: What have been some of your most exciting experiences in the ocean?

DR: Swimming with sperm whales by far is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve swam with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean, and when rare species like beaked whales surface it’s very exciting. I had an amazing swim with some pilot whales who were extremely playful. When I’m swimming in the ocean I never touch or feed any of the sea life and match whatever mood they are in out of respect, and let them come to me. I’ve had some amazing dolphin swims, and it’s very cool since I know a lot of them. Many times they have swam over and rubbed up against me. One time in particular a dolphin and I were swimming and he stopped next to me and came so close he put his dorsal fin under my arm and glided with me down to about 40 feet. Humpback whales are also one of my favorites to be in the water with. I’ve had some insane experiences with groups of males competing for a female, singers that sing so loud you can feel the sound. I was swimming with the Southern Pacific Humpback Whales and there was a baby that was so playful that it just kept rolling and circling, blowing bubbles and even swam over and grazed me with her pectoral fin. I could go on and on.

DH: What have been some of your most fearful moments under the sea?

DR: One time I was swimming near this fish farm in a few hundred feet of water with a couple bottlenose dolphins when I noticed the dolphins swim off a bit. I dove down in an attempt to encourage their playfulness and invite them back over and out of the depths I saw a large shape coming towards me. Tiger sharks and baby whale sharks can look very similar so I just looked for either spots or stripes. I saw the stripes and waited as he came up to me and circled me a few times then lost interest. He was just curious, but I definitely was caught off guard and had that feeling of being checked out. Honestly, I really feel much safer in the seas than on land.

DH: What does it take to be a free diver?

DR: Free divers are definitely a unique group of people who continue to break records in the underwater realm, showing the impossible to be possible. Free diving is all self-discipline and mind-over-matter. We are basically diving underwater with breath hold and depth, which goes against what our minds and bodies tell us we can do. Much like yoga, breath is involved to relax the body and allow for more open movement. Breath is a big part of free diving, relaxing the body and lungs in order for the body to stay oxygenated longer. That ultimately takes practice, discipline and patience. It’s really important to not force dives, as you can really injure yourself. Most marine life seem to communicate through energy and there is the ebb and flow of life that shows their awareness of surroundings. Free diving is similar to surfing in that it’s very much self-discipline and ever changing. The ocean environment changes and each day can be a different experience in the elements. My body is also changing as well so it's very important to tune in to my surroundings and also where I’m at physically and mentally. Cold water is much more challenging to free dive in and also sinus problems or a full stomach really prevent length and depth while diving. When I’m away traveling on land, it takes a couple days for my body to re adjust back to free diving mode.

DH: How and why did you start “mermaiding?” Do you make your own costumes?

DR: I do make and create all my own tails to swim in. I started doing this about three years ago. As a child I always felt very connected to the ocean and played mermaids in the water. I believe a real mermaid lives and breathes the sea and has that deep connection to the ocean. As a marine mammal naturalist I’m blessed to be able to educate people about the ocean and help them experience the magic of the sea. Through the years my love of the ocean took me to different types of work from being a lifeguard, swim instructor, boat crew member, underwater photographer, snorkel instructor and safety swimmer, boat captain, surfer, and marine mammal naturalist. I just decided to take it to the next level and grow a tail! My main message is to re inspire our connection from land to sea as a mermaid. It’s pretty cool because I get to really capture the audience of kids and adults, educate about the magic of the ocean, and also really help others follow their dreams.

DH: Tell me about life behind the lens.

DR: I’ve been photographing underwater for the last 10 years. I’ve always loved the creativity of photography and started just playing around with some underwater cameras. The lighting underwater made for some really amazing photos. I started using a Nikonos film camera, which was fun for a little while until I realized what a drag it is to be having an amazing experience underwater and then run out of film and have to head back to the boat. So I switched over to the digital side and found a great housing that is perfect for how I swim with sea life and enables me to capture them in their habitat. My photography is called Mana Kai photography. Mana in Hawaiian means spirit, power, or life source, and Kai means the sea, so basically the spirit of the sea comes out through my photos. My favorite things to photograph are dolphins and whales and light rays beaming through the water. Sharks and rays are fun too. I love going back through the pictures and seeing the amazing things I was able to capture in that watery world. It’s pretty cool to be able to share that with others too, especially people who live far from the ocean and need to see what goes on under there.


DH: How do you give back to the sea and the environment?

DR: Every way I can -- picking up trash, educating others on the state of the ocean. The coolest thing is meeting kids even as young as 6 who are learning about the ocean in schools and how to make a difference. We all can create change at any age. I do some research for whale and dolphin species and do everything I can to bring awareness to marine life. I’ve come across several species of sea life entangled in fishing line and always carry scissors with me so if the opportunity arises I can help. I was able to free two different dolphins who had fishing line entangled in their mouth and tail. I also happened upon a humpback whale who I thought was entangled in a huge fishing net and lines. He was actually curious and starting to play with it, which is one of the main reasons whales get entangled. Luckily I caught him just in time and was able to get the entire mass of fishing line onto the boat and save him from an entanglement. “Malama I Ke Kai” -- take care of the ocean.

Thank you Dana for your inspirations and proving my belief that mermaids really do exist!!

Below are some more photos and a video of Dana the mermaid. Enjoy. Also check out Dana's website:

Photo by Sarah Lee

Misha Photography

Photo by Lisa Denning

Mana Kai photography

Misha Photography